The D-Day landings at Normandy were one of the great stories of the Second World War, and it was undoubtedly the most sought-after reporting job for the correspondents of the era. Among the press assigned to accompany the invading forces was Australian broadcaster Chester Wilmot, who landed in a field in occupied France with the men of the 6th British Airborne Division in the early hours of 6 June 1944.
A correspondent’s view
“With grinding brakes and creaking timbers we jolted, lurched and crashed our way to a landing,” he reported for the BBC later that morning. The Germans had prepared for enemy aircraft landings on the coast of France: across dozens of fields they drove in steel posts, which became known as “Rommel’s asparagus”.
The glider in which I travelled came off better than most. The bottom of the nose was battered in. The wings and tail assembly had been slashed here and there, but she came to rest on her three wheels, even though she had mown five stout posts that came in her path.
We shouted with joy and relief and bundled out into the field. All around us we could see silhouettes of other gliders, twisted and wrecked so that they made grotesque patterns against the sky ... And yet as we marched off past these twisted wrecks – thanking heaven for our good fortune – troops were clambering out with their equipment, as casually as they might leave a bus. Some had to slash away the wooden fuselage before they could get out their jeeps and trailers, but almost without exception they soon had them on the road.
Wilmot had arrived in England just one month before D-Day to start work for the BBC’s War report program. He was famous in Australia as an exceptional war correspondent, who had followed the AIF in North Africa and New Guinea. His coverage of the Normandy campaign, and subsequent reporting as the Allies liberated Europe, garnered him an international reputation. His experience also led him to write The struggle for Europe, which is still regarded as one of the best histories of the Second World War.
Born in Melbourne to a journalist father, Wilmot was working as a law clerk when the Second World War began. He had no formal media training but had been on air intermittently at the Australian Broadcasting Commission (now Corporation), and was appointed to its field unit. Wilmot’s radio reporting style was innovative and inclusive: he conducted interviews with soldiers and officers, as well as recording the sounds of war. His analysis of strategy and descriptions of action were considered masterly. He had a scoop at the battle of Beda Fomm in Libya, and spent several months at Tobruk, as well as in Greece and Syria.
Wilmot returned to Australia after Japan’s entry into the war, and became the ABC’s principal war correspondent in the Pacific. With cameraman Damien Parer and journalist Osmar White, Wilmot laboured along the muddy and miserable Kokoda Trail in 1942 to capture the experience of Australians fighting there. The three found fault with senior command for not providing the men with proper equipment and supplies, but Wilmot’s attempt to broadcast his views was blocked by censors.
The war correspondent was not afraid to challenge commanders – and as a result, he made an enemy of the Australian commander-in-chief, General Thomas Blamey. After a series of run-ins, Blamey cancelled Wilmot’s accreditation as a war correspondent in November 1942. It was a solid blow to Wilmot’s career, but he returned to Sydney and continued to broadcast for the ABC throughout 1943. He also published an acclaimed book on Tobruk and wrote the script – as well as partly narrated – the documentary film, Sons of the ANZACs.
The job with the BBC was Wilmot’s big break, and he embraced it. He initially thought it was a “crazy idea” for him to accompany the 6th British Airborne Division. “What kind of a welcome we’ll get, I don’t know,” Wilmot recorded mid-flight. “We can only wait and see.”
After landinghe stayed with the British 6th Airborne Division for a week and recorded more than a dozen news reports: the division’s triumphs, the intensity of some of their early encounters, the work of medics, the propaganda offensive waged by the Germans, and the reality of life among the spies and snipers. In a report on 8 June, he told the story of a British officer who on D-Day had missed his battalion’s drop zone and landed near a town “strongly held by the Germans”:
But he fell among friends – there were French patriots in the town and among them a spirited girl of about 25. The Sergeant-Major couldn’t speak a word of French, but the girl befriended him, hid him during the day and guided him back through the German positions on Tuesday night. He arrived back at the force HQ on Wednesday evening with the French girl, and with full information about the German positions in the town. A few hours later he and the girl were on their way back there, guiding a strong raiding force. They attacked during last night and this morning we’ve had reports that they’ve cleared the town of Germans and killed a large number of them.
After D-Day, Wilmot covered many of the major British operations as the Allies advanced toward victory in Europe. And he recorded the moment of victory itself, when the Germans surrendered to Montgomery at Lüneberg on 4 May 1945.
By then Wilmot was already planning to write a book about the Second World War, and he was among the first to get access to captured German documents. The struggle for Europe was published in 1952 and was an instant best seller. Renowned British historian John Keegan has called it “revolutionary … He showed me how military history should be written ... Wilmot turned himself into a historian to write The struggle for Europe, a historian of formidable quality,” Keegan wrote in The battle for history, a study of differing historical views of the war.
Wilmot continued to live and work in England as a broadcaster and writer after the war. He was also appointed as an Australian official war historian to write the volume dealing with the siege of Tobruk and the battle of Alamein. However, Wilmot had not yet started the volume when he was killed in a plane crash over Italy in January 1954.
While Wilmot’s reporting of D-Day and the Normandy invasion is perhaps not familiar to modern-day audiences, it enthralled listeners to the BBC in Britain and around the world at the time. He captured the complexities and the intensity of the operation in a way few others were capable of. His post-war writing on the preparations for the invasion, and the landing itself, remains riveting today and remains a landmark text on the liberation of Europe.
About the author
Emma Campbell is a staff writer in the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial